No doubt there is a repertoire of answers. The term doesn’t have a straightforward definition because it means something different to everyone. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) defines female empowerment as a ‘process by which women gain power and control over their own lives and acquire the ability to make strategic choices.’ For the purpose of this piece, I shall use this definition as a reference.
Now this read is not about providing you with a polished definition on female empowerment but simply exploring what it means to you and I. My hope is that it will give you an opportunity to engage in the dialogue about a topic which endeavours to create and increase inclusive, open and prosperous societies.
Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. There has been much progress over the last decade but despite these gains, many challenges remain.
My intention is to steer clear of topics that you will most likely be well informed on however, a brief mention on aspects that are relevant here cannot be sidestepped.
In April 2020, the UN Secretary-General rightly said, ‘Limited gains in gender equality and women’s rights made over the decades are in danger of being rolled back due to the COVID-19 pandemic’. The effects of the pandemic could well reverse the progress that has been made so far. The outbreak has exacerbated existing inequalities for women and girls across every sphere, from health and the economy to security and social protection. Women have played a disproportionate role in responding to the virus not least as frontline healthcare workers but also as carers at home. They have been hard hit by the economic impact of the virus too as they disproportionately work in insecure labour markets.
So, with all this and so much else happening in the world right now, it is necessary now more than ever to talk about building an empowered community.
Dr Keshab Chandra Mandal (renowned teacher, researcher, columnist, inspirational speaker and author) lucidly wrote about how female empowerment can be defined in five separate categories;
One of the most prominent forms of empowerment is shown in the mainstream media. Showcasing the purpose of a female outside of the home and where their contributions to society are recognised and valued.
Puts everyone on an equal footing providing access to the development of social, political, intellectual and religious consciousness making women self-sufficient.
As the famous saying goes, ‘money can’t buy happiness’ but economic disadvantage can take away access to becoming empowered compared to those in good financial standings.
Advocating women’s rights. Political influence means having a voice in how things are governed and allowing the possibility of policies and programs being put in place not only in government and organisations but in familial and societal matters too.
Transgresses the traditional and patriarchal taboos and social obligations, enabling women to go beyond what’s expected of them in society.
All the above categories intertwine with one another but it’s equally important to consider them as separate entities too. Knowing that work has to be put into all can provide a boost in the right direction and allow empowerment not just for women but for all eventually.
Allow me to bring you to my personal thoughts on this topic. For me, female empowerment is;
The natural ability I discovered I possessed to excel in sports / physical education during my early teenage years. I aggressively pursued this despite hearing discouragement from friends who often called me aggressive instead of competitive to family who simply downplayed my accomplishments in this area. I now realise this had less to do with a lack of encouragement and support but more with growing up in a community which was entrenched in patriarchal values. Silver lining? I guess my feelings of empowerment started early.
Repeatedly hearing ‘this is a man’s job’. My answer? Did Amelia Earhart think she couldn’t become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean because she saw no other woman do it before her? How about Madam C. J. Walker? Did she not become the first self-made black female millionaire because she saw no other woman that looked like her do it? What about Benazir Bhutto? It didn’t stop her from becoming the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority nation? The list goes on. In other words, if you can’t see a role model to empower you, be the role model. Be the role model you wish you had. It didn’t stop all the incredible women we now read about in history books and believe that it won’t stop many to come, including you.
Throughout my 20’s, I often found myself stepping away from the stereotypes of what it means to be a female so as not to appear feminine because I won’t be taken seriously in both personal and professional settings. Hence, I made an unconscious decision to not wear the colour pink, too much makeup, have long hair or wear skirts and dresses. Oh, how wrong was I. This moment requires the appreciation of icons which have left their footprint in history all whilst maintaining their femininity with poise; Audrey Hepburn (British actress, model and humanitarian), Princess Diana (The Princess of Wales, one of the most beloved women in history), Michelle Obama (needs no introduction however, Former First Lady of the United States, Lawyer and Author).
I’m sure you can think of many examples in your life where you’ve been empowered and have indeed empowered another female but haven’t recognised this, maybe until now. This may be due to the profound words and actions we often hear about and not the small but significant movements. In order to make any change, you need to begin. And in order for you to begin, mindset is key. Then come the words and inevitably the actions. No word is too little or small, no action is too little or small, so long as you think like an empowered female, you can talk and act like an empowered female and therefore spread the inspiration in your life.
Taking you back to the global champion for women and girls, on the 2nd July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly created UN Women. It’s the UN’s Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women established to accelerate progress on meetings women’s and girls’ needs worldwide. This doesn’t only require a call to celebration because of a decade of recognised global efforts for gender equality and community building but it also happens to be the day of my birth! Need I say more?
If you are still reading, firstly I thank you for your time and secondly, I hope it is safe to assume that you want to encourage and empower women and girls including yourself. If so, how about you tell the woman in the mirror that you love, care and believe in her. Then tell your mother, sister, daughter and friend how much you appreciate them. Maybe you could write an email to a teacher/mentor who encouraged you years ago. Start with using your voice within the home which can then be carried into schools, through academic settings and right into the workplace, business and community.
In 2013, acclaimed singers and musicians, women and men, from China to Costa Rica, from Mali to Malaysia, came together to spread a message of unity and solidarity: We are ‘One Woman’. Rightly so, although we might not all want to sing to spread this message, I for one would cause more harm than good. So, in celebration of UN Women’s 10-year anniversary, go and have a listen because after all, we are ‘One Woman’.
Finally, what does female empowerment mean to you? What will your role be in building a community of empowered women? The stage is yours.